Winning close games crucial to Wolverines' tournament hopes

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 - 7:02pm

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico is trying to lead the Wolverines to their second NCAA Tournament berth .

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico is trying to lead the Wolverines to their second NCAA Tournament berth . Buy this photo
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Last year, the Michigan women’s basketball team had ambitions of securing a berth in the NCAA Tournament. But in large part due to their six losses by ten or fewer points, the Wolverines fell short and were forced to settle for their third consecutive NIT appearance.

In one of them — a 77-69 overtime defeat at the hands of Indiana last January — the Wolverines held a nine-point lead with four minutes to go in regulation yet were unable to sustain their lead in the most important moments.

On Tuesday, Michigan faced Indiana for the first time since that heartbreaker. Once again, the Wolverines held a nine-point advantage late in the fourth quarter. 

But this time, Michigan successfully found a way to close out the game. Senior guard Siera Thompson made four critical free throws in the final 15 seconds to solidify a 78-74 victory over the Hoosiers.

“That was a game we really talked about a lot last year,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico on WTKA radio. “Moving into this year and how we wanted to grow and how we wanted to improve, we knew closing out games like this was going to be really important. We found a way to inbound the basketball, which is something we struggled with in last year’s game.”

Thanks to the performance of sophomore center Hallie Thome, who notched her third double-double of the year with 21 points and 11 rebounds, the Wolverines managed to secure the victory. 

More importantly for Michigan, she committed only one foul in the first half, which allowed her to play for 36 minutes. In the Wolverines’ prior game — a 96-87 loss at No. 11 Ohio State — Thome was called for two fouls early in the second quarter, which forced her off the floor and allowed the Buckeyes to win the rebounding battle, 47-34.

With games against Minnesota, which sits in the top 30 in the Ratings Percentage Index, and No. 3 Maryland on the horizon, keeping Thome out of foul trouble will be of the utmost importance for the Wolverines.

“That was the difference in the game,” Barnes Arico said on WTKA about the game against Ohio State. “At the end of the first quarter we were up 12-6 in rebounding. We were really getting the second chance opportunities. We’ve been working the past several days on becoming a better rebounding team, even when Hallie gets into foul trouble.”

Another key factor that Michigan will need to monitor as conference play progresses is the amount of playing time its reserves see. On Tuesday, all five of the Wolverines’ starters played at least 35 minutes.

While that arrangement worked for Michigan against Indiana, Barnes Arico knows that it is an unsustainable formula and promised more reserve action against the Golden Gophers on Sunday.

“I definitely think (the rotation) will be expanded again,” Barnes Arico said. “I think it depends a lot on matchups. We knew that Indiana would be a difficult matchup for some of our younger kids. They’re an experienced team that makes you pay for your little mistakes. I foresee as the conference schedule goes on, we’re going to have some more people that will get into the rotation and impact our team.”

One wild card the Wolverines have up their sleeve is the addition of senior center — and former volleyball player — Abby Cole, who Barnes Arico hinted may see the court in the near future. Cole, in addition to Thome, would give Michigan a favorable size advantage, especially on defense.

“We think (Cole) will be ready to go, hopefully within the next week,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s just resting her legs and resting her shins after coming off of the last year of playing volleyball.”

Regardless of whether or not Cole plays anytime soon, the Wolverines will need to find ways to replicate their performance from Tuesday night in tight contests if they plan to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Barnes Arico’s five-year tenure.